Amber’s Guide to Surviving Comps

Photo by jerine

Photo by jerine

Amber Clawson, a Graduate Assistant in our office, is finishing up her M.A. in History this semester. As part of her program, she recently took a Comprehensive Exam. Comprehensive Exams (often called “comps”) are designed to test your ability to integrate all of the knowledge you’ve accumulated while in your program, and they’re a common requirement for most master’s degree programs in the humanities.

Many students consider taking comps to be an intensely stressful experience, so I’ve asked Amber to provide us with a survival guide so we can learn how she managed to do it and remain sane!  Here’s her advice:

Comprehensive Exams?  Been there. Done that.

In February I managed not only to survive my comprehensive exams, but to pass them!  Comprehensive exams are things of legend in any graduate environment.   We enter our respective programs and hear horror stories from second year students.  For some reason we think we might not survive “Comps.” But, had we taken a moment to think it through, we might realize that if we survived our first semester of graduate school then Comps are no big deal.  Well, only if you’re prepared.

Sure, the questions can come from left field and, yes, you have to study everything you’ve learned in graduate classes-but if you are organized you can tackle Comps and succeed, whatever your discipline!

What worked for me?

  1. Get organized.  It’s not enough to review and study your notes and readings.  It helps to organize them in a quick reference manner so as you write, your materials are at hand. There are multiple ways to do this.  You can organize by theme, author, chronology, etc.-whatever works best for you!  (Note: My “comps” were take home, so this advice pertains to similar exams, not so much to in-class tests.)
  2. Sleep.  If you don’t rest your work will suffer.  So, sacrificing sleep is not the way to get ahead.
  3. Time Management.  In X amount of hours (depending on your program) you must outline, write, and edit your responses.  Therefore it is important to watch your time. DO NOT FORGET TO EDIT!
  4. Have a Support System.  During the exam time frame have friends and family on stand-by available to encourage and support you.  The best part? Once you finish, have a fun dinner afterwards to celebrate your accomplishment and all the wonderful people in your life.

This may sound like preparation for any other test.  But taking a test with such huge implications for your academic career can be daunting-it’s easy to forget the basics.  The most important thing?


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